While Power admits that he would have gained greater satisfaction from winning the second Texas race if Franchitti and Dixon had started from speed-representative positions, he doesn't consider (as many in the media inaccurately stated) that winning that race meant he'd gotten over some mental hump when it came to ovals. However, he admits he's still improving.
“It's not just about knowing what to expect while I'm racing on ovals now. It's knowing how a good car like a Penske should feel on each of the ovals that's different for me this year. I think Dave [Faustino, his race engineer] and I are bringing more to the table when the team's discussing oval setups. We aren't just relying on what Helio and Ryan have run in the past and going from there. At Texas, we tried a setup that the team hadn't tried there before and it worked and we could share that information. That's how we work.”
And the so-called “mental hump?”
“There was no mental hump,” he says. “That's just people looking at the results and not the circumstances. But that doesn't bother me – can't say I even thought about it until you brought it up. I knew I could have won a couple of ovals last year so if people want to say I'm not good enough on ovals, well, that's fine because I like being regarded as the underdog.”
That mental strength is another key point to the Will Power of 2011. The guy who seemed so ill at ease racing for KV three years ago, living on nerves and instincts, and feeling that almost every lap of every session was make-or-break for his career – that guy has long gone. Now he feels wanted and appreciated; not just an extra in a chaotic soap opera. He's surrounded by people as focused and hungry for success as him. Since he and wife Elizabeth moved down to Charlotte in the off-season, Will has been in the Penske shop every day and feels a closer bond with Cindric and the whole team. He knows that a missed opportunity to win – such as at Long Beach this year, when Castroneves infamously spun Power and himself out of contention – is felt by the whole team. And he has a way of (eventually) seeing the positive side…or at least, the bigger picture. Pre-Indy, he admitted that getting four poles, two wins and a second place from the opening four races and leading the championship heading to the 500 was “pretty good.” A previous-era Power would have still been dwelling on the loss of two wins.
However, his greatest strength is not ever being content to the extent of self satisfaction. For example, it annoys him that he's yet to take pole at Toronto, especially since it's a track he loves and where he's won twice. He was deeply impressed with Wilson's pole position there for D&R last year.
“I'm not sure how he did it, because even if I'd put all my best sectors together, I think I'd have still been like half a tenth off. He's just fast, man. And Hunter-Reay at Long Beach this year: exceptional. He could have been on pole; he only lost it in the last sector, so the majority of the lap must have been unbelievable! I always rated Hunter-Reay though. He's just one of those relentless drivers. You pull a small gap on him, and if you relax just a fraction, he's right back at you, filling your mirrors. Never really understood why some people used to overlook him and bang on about a driver who hasn't been proven yet.”
Power's personal quest for self-improvement is driven by a fairly rigid belief that there's no such thing as natural-born talent in a racecar driver. A sense of balance, depth of perception, bravery, coolness under pressure and so on – those are natural, genetic inheritances that can aid a racer's cause. But Power is convinced that hard work, experience and understanding will allow any driver to apply someone else's data on track and replicate it.
“It's logical to me,” he says when questioned about it. “There's always something you can learn. I learned from Helio and Ryan, and before that Oriol, Simon Pagenaud and Tag. And they learned from me. If I was teammate to Dario, Scott, Justin, Ryan Hunter-Reay, I know there would be things I could learn from them and they'd learn from me. So eventually everyone becomes a more complete driver and you each have to find new ways to improve, and the level just goes up and up.”
With that philosophy, Power clearly feels the devil's always snapping at his heels.
“Yeah, and it's the same whenever there's an incident with another driver. I hate it when guys never take the blame or always thinks it's totally the other driver's fault. That's just bull. There's always something you could have done different that could have altered the outcome. For example, Edmonton last year. Forget about all the stuff with Helio and the black flags. I shouldn't have lost the lead in the first place. I put myself in a position where Helio could get a run on me, because I got caught behind a backmarker at a part of the circuit where I couldn't pass, so I lost momentum. I could have timed it better: I could have gone harder and passed the backmarker earlier or timed it so that I caught him at a place where I could pass without losing momentum. That's what I mean: you've got to learn from everything that happens, otherwise how can you improve yourself?”
That echoes precisely what Clive Howell, team manager and race strategist for the Verizon No. 12 car, has observed in Power. “Will's not nonchalant at all,” he remarked last year. “He's a pretty intense guy and won't leave any stone unturned to find ways to improve.”
And that's what he's done. With an oval win under his belt, the perceived chinks in Will Power's armor are closing all the time. One criticism that could perhaps be leveled at him is that he's sometimes too cautious on restarts when he isn't the race leader. But maybe even that's unfair: the whole start and restart procedure has looked increasingly random – and randomly officiated – especially on ovals, since the series went to double-file restarts. And from closely observing and racing against people like Franchitti, Power has learned when caution is better than valor, and when to be opportunistic.
There will still be days – probably on ovals – where Castroneves and/or Briscoe will finish ahead, but on current form, those days are going to be few and will be down to their pit crews occasionally being sharper or RP's or Cindric's strategies working better than Howell's. What each needs to boost their confidence is a win. Power, as is standard for him, is expecting them to be right at the front at Milwaukee.
“I expect Ryan and Helio to be quick <I>every</I> race. They're quick drivers who had unfortunate starts to the year. That's why they're playing catch-up; not because they haven't been fast enough. And I can see Ryan still being able to make a strong run at the championship. No way is he out of it. OK, it's going to be bloody hard for Helio, but being as quick as he is, he can still win a bunch of races and affect the direction of the championship.”
In other words, Castroneves can rob the Ganassi drivers of points – a vital role. Franchitti and Dixon are an awesome pair of rivals: they don't have the mental hang-ups of a direct comparison with Power, they know how to win championships (two each), they're fast everywhere, they have fast cars everywhere and Franchitti, in particular, stays mentally cool. Now Dixon, too, seems to be getting closer to that consistently placid state of mind and that's making him ever stronger.
So Power can expect an even tougher championship battle than last year; the Ganassi opposition is even stronger and Briscoe has still got time to turn his championship campaign around at any time. But the Ganassi boys know their opposition from the Penske No. 12 is stronger than in 2010 as well…and will continue to strengthen. The evidence is in the details.